Maternal, child and infant mortality rates in Eritrea have all fallen by about a third since 1995, mainly thanks to better healthcare for pregnant women, more immunisations and less malaria, a senior healthcare official said on Thursday.
"In spite of the massive reduction, we are not very happy with it, and we need to work very hard to reduce it even more," said Zemui Alemu, director of the Family and Community Health Division at the Eritrean Ministry of Health.
Alemu said that large numbers of home deliveries, lack of transport and obstetric knowledge, distance from health facilities and malnutrition were all factors that were keeping maternal mortality high.
A UN Children's Fund and World Health Organisation estimate in 2004 put maternal mortality in Eritrea at about 630 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.
This compares with a 1995 figure of 998 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, from a Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) undertaken by Eritrean government departments and international partners, mainly funded by the US Agency for International Development.
Eritrea gained official independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
An expanded programme to immunise Eritrean children had been particularly successful, Alemu said.
Immunisation rates had increased from 9.6 percent in 1991 up to 76 percent in 2002, he said. Children were vaccinated against tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, polio, and - since 2002 - hepatitis B.
A DHS in 2002 found that children between the ages of one and five had been dying at a rate of 93 deaths per 1,000 live births; in 1995’s DHS that figure was 136 deaths.
Infant mortality rates, that is, when a child dies before the age of one, were also shown to have fallen by the DHSs. In 1995 the figure was 72 infant deaths per 1,000 live births – by 2002 that had fallen to 48 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Alemu said that government commitments and donor support had helped Eritrea to avoid some of the worst effects of five years’ drought on maternal and child health.
He added that malaria had fallen by 85 percent in the past five years, as the benefits from increased use of mosquito nets took effect. Persistent drought had also helped to control the mosquitoes.
Other initiatives in Eritrea included expanded training on the management of childhood illnesses, the development of community manuals, and the construction of maternity waiting homes for semi-nomadic people, Alemu said.
The UN's Millennium Development Goals include a 75 percent reduction in the maternal mortality rate between 1990 and 2015, and a 67 percent reduction in child mortality over the same period.